Courage, canvas and a camera

A “warning from the universe” spurred Connell McMenamin to follow his dream. But being an artist takes courage – and to learn to see all over again.
On the left, the head and shoulders of a man, photographed from behind. He stands in front of an upright board, upon which two drawings are taped. The drawings are identical – of the sculpted figure of a man, with no arms or head and the legs gone from the knee. One is on pale yellow paper and the other on plain white.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

To be an artist, you need several things: the tools of your art, ambition, curiosity, patience and courage. Connell McMenamin has all of these things, but if you put them into a pie chart, the biggest slice by far would be courage. Four years ago, a diagnosis of prostate cancer put life in very sharp perspective for Connell, and he realised that corporate life, which had been very successful and stable for his family, was not where he saw himself in the future.
“Ten years ago, I started saving to do something else… start my own business or go travelling maybe.” He was drawing, visiting galleries and taking short courses with LARA (The London Atelier of Representational Art) and London Fine Arts, (“scratching an itch,” as he describes it) and daydreaming about working at an atelier, where he could paint all day and learn art as his trade. “Prostate cancer was kind of like a little warning from the universe that made me re-evaluate things,” he says matter of factly. The second message from the universe came in the form of some changes at work. And the third? “I was in the car with my son, who was eleven at the time, and I said, ‘what do you think of my artwork?’ And he replied “well, it’s alright, I quite like it. But you need to commit.” Connell laughs with fondness at the memory, but his son was right, and he knew what he had to do.

A man in a yellow t-shirt stands holding a white sculpture of the head of a bearded man in front of his own face, in his right hand. His left-hand gestures, open-palmed, towards a drawing on an easel behind him. It is a representation of the sculpted head in charcoal, on a black background.

Connell spends nearly three months at a stretch on a single piece of artwork, such as the charcoal drawing of a sculpture of Homer.

After a successful course of treatment and with another huge measure of bravery, he took the plunge. In the space of a month, he left his job and headed to Barcelona Academy of Art, which has since been Connell’s home away from home. He is due to graduate this autumn and his artistic practice has taken a stellar trajectory, which is as you might expect when you go from painting and drawing in between work and family commitments to devoting eight hours a day, five days a week, immersed in your practice. He paints in oils and will routinely spend weeks and weeks working with a single model. “In the morning I do a ‘long pose’, where a model will sit four days a week for three hours a day,” he explains. “Then at the same time we have projects that can take an entire semester, eleven weeks, three hours a day.” As strange as it might sound, possibly the most critical part of the process is learning to see. “Because to start with, you can’t see. You can’t see the values properly, you can’t see the colours properly, you can’t see transitions properly. You just don’t see them. They don’t exist. Your brain just doesn’t have the visual acuity.” His years at the Academy have taught him to notice almost imperceptible shifts in paintings and drawings that most of us simply wouldn’t register.
Connell has also added a Canon EOS 100D to his armoury of artists tools and it acts as another set of eyes to help him both track his progress and gain greater clarity on his process. He takes daily photos of his work (“before I go to sleep, I look at the photograph of the thing I’m trying to paint, trying to figure out what to do next.”), as well as reference shots, which help him to come up with ideas for new paintings. However, the camera has surprising value when it comes to helping him to gain greater perspective on works in progress. “Sometimes I’ll be painting, and the tutor will say, ‘actually you could increase saturation, increase the colour’, but you can’t really see it because your painting is what you think you see,” he explains. So, he’ll photograph his canvas and use Photoshop to adjust the saturation on the photograph, just to see what the tutor means. “If you boost saturation, you can see that you’ve got all the colours in the right place, they all make sense. I just haven’t been brave enough. And when I go back to my painting, it’s grey. I realise I can increase the colour. I can push it. Just doing this recalibrates your perception. So, as a learning tool, it’s very useful.”

Photographed from behind, a man in a black t-shirt stands in front of a board upon which a painting of a person dressed in full PPE is taped. Next to it is a colour wheel and colour chart, also taped onto the board.

Connell’s Canon EOS 100D lets him to see the potential of his artworks, by allowing him to take photographs of works in progress and adjust the colours digitally.

However, there are plenty of artists who will not use the camera in the way Connell does, but there are still plenty of reasons they can’t do without it. “I know artists who won’t work from photographs, but they still use a camera for social media. They use photography to present their work and portray it in the best possible light,” he says. “Even if you’re not using it to create your work, you’re still using it as part of your overall workflow.” A professional photographer who is resident at Barcelona Academy of Art is helping Connell to understand the potential of his camera when photographing his artworks. This is something that artists notoriously struggle with for several reasons: There are issues of colour accuracy, capturing texture, drawing the viewers eye to the intended place on the canvas and achieving the perfect reflection of light. The help of a professional showed Connell how to simplify his approach and work with manual focus for the first time. He has discovered that the Barcelona sunshine is not conducive to the kind of ‘flat light’ that’s needed when photographing oil on canvas. But he has discovered some new tricks. “If you position the painting in the bottom half of the frame, that seems to get rid of a lot of the glare, and then just crop it from there. It seems to work, but I don’t understand the physics of it,” he laughs.
However, there are some things that simply have to be done in editing. For example, Connell uses the ‘impasto’ technique, where you build up layers of paint onto the canvas in the direction of where the light will hit the painting. It creates stunning highlights but it’s a big challenge to photograph. Equally, it’s incredibly hard to take photographs of drawings in charcoal or white chalk. “Getting something that shows the subtlety of the drawing is really difficult. Quite often the shadows are super light on the photograph, so I’ll use Photoshop or Lightroom to adjust the values, shadows and lights, just to try and make it look like it does in real life,” he explains. “And the same with oil paintings. The temperature might need changing, you might want to sharpen it or up the saturation a little.”

Right: Connell stands facing his wooden easel, a raised paintbrush in his right hand and large wooden palette resting on his right hand. He is painting a still life, which is secured to the easel with a red clip at the top. He wears a blue shirt and glasses, with his hair in a bun, midway up the back of his head. On the left is a quote that reads: “You just have to turn up and work, leave your ego to one side, understand that you’re going to get frustrated and embrace it. Because that means you’re finding something new.” © @Enelgado

Preparing artworks for social media can be tricky, however, and Connell is very aware of the temptation that many artists feel to present their works online in the most flattering, if not entirely accurate, light. “You want something that’s representative,” he says. “There are some painters whose work looks better on Instagram than it does in real life. Obviously, it gets compressed down and everything looks tighter on a small picture. But I just want my work to look like it does when people see it.” That’s not to say that he doesn’t fool around a little from time to time, turning his artworks into fun pop-art or abstract-styles. Art is all in the experimentation, after all.
It’s been a fascinating journey for Connell’s online followers, who have watched him go from ambitious amateur to accomplished artist in just a few years. And by his own admission, it’s been one of the hardest things he’s ever done. But with just a few months left at the Academy, he has already started planning the onward journey. He and his wife intend to go travelling, with Connell painting in each location they visit and his wife capturing the experience in parallel, through blogging and photography. It feels like the perfect next step in what is an adventure, yes, but also another leap into the unknown, another act of courage. Life presents us all with choices and it’s often too easy to take the familiar, safe path. But Connell did not and will not. “I don’t want to wonder what might have happened,” he says. “So, if not now, when?”
Follow Connell’s artistic journey on Instagram.

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